Grammys 2012: Dave Grohl and Butch Vig Reflect on Nirvana, Adele and the State of the Music Business (Q&A)
With the Foo Fighters nabbing six nominations, including album of the year, the band's frontman and "Wasting Light" producer talk about their all-analog achievement and look back on a 20-year history of great music.
The Grammys shed 31 categories in April, but the Foo Fighters' Dave Grohl has a suggestion for one they should add: "Best garage record. Wouldn't that be f--ing rad?" says the 43-year-old frontman. "Or best old-school album," offers producer of the year nominee Butch Vig, 56. They're not entirely kidding, though it's doubtful they'd have much competition. That's because Wasting Light, the Foos' seventh album, was an all-analog production created by meticulously stitching together pieces of 2-inch tape, as was the usual practice until the mid-'90s, when digital recording became commonplace. "You have to be a little insane to make a record this way," says Vig, who also produced Nirvana's seminal 1991 album Nevermind. "And I've got all these young bands asking, 'Will you do records in analog now?' My answer is, 'Not unless you can play as good as the Foo Fighters!' " Weeks of preproduction and rehearsals in a top-of-the-line studio preceded four months spent in Grohl's garage in the San Fernando Valley, which offered the best of two worlds, allowing him to spend time with his wife and two daughters and make the band's most challenging -- and likely most gratifying -- album, the first to get a Grammy nom for album of the year (the Foos have six noms this year). Says Grohl: "To me, it's the greatest honor. It blew me away." Still, he adds a dose of modesty: "It's not rocket science. If you're semi-decent at an instrument and grew up with Beatles albums, make a f--ing record in your garage. You might get a Grammy nomination. It's not an impossibility."
Read on for more of THR’s interview with Grohl and Vig.
The Hollywood Reporter: It is somewhat ironic that before starting your all-analog garage record, you did weeks of pre-production in a top-of-the-line facility…
Butch Vig: A million dollar studio.
Dave Grohl: Then recorded it in the garage, which is exactly the opposite of what most people do. I thought the most important thing was the environment in which we record and how we do it. Rather than just walk into the nicest studio in town and go through the same process that every other band goes through. Why not make it exciting? It made perfect sense to me. Butch is great at making bands sound great. I'm usually sort of shifting in this other sort of direction. I want it to sound great in kind of a f--ked up way and Butch and I sort of met together. There's a few bands that have their Butch Vig record -- like Sonic Youth have their Butch Vig record, Nirvana has their Butch Vig record and that record always stands out in the catalog as a really masterful piece of work. I just wanted that, I wanted a Butch Vig record so bad.
THR: Who’s riding whose coattails here? It's not entirely clear.
Grohl:It's funny, I think one of the reasons why we had never made a record with Butch is because of the baggage that comes along with the two of us getting together. I mean, having done Nevermind, that sort of eclipses anything. But that was 20 years ago, you'd imagine at some point it would be ok to do it and let go of all of that baggage. It was just time and plus we're friends. And he's just really good at what he does.
Vig: And we've seen each other on tour. Garbage have played shows with the Foos over the last ten years. What made it happen was: I came in and did two tracks for the greatest hits. We did them pretty fast and it was really fun, and we were like, “Duh, we should work on a record together.” So that kind of, in a way, broke the ice.
THR: It's almost like, who's crazier? The person who suggested recording in analog or the person who said, “Yeah, I'll do it!”
Vig: Well it was his idea and I was skeptical at the start because you get used to working certain ways. It's like, “Well, shit, I used to make records on a tape and it's kind of a pain in the ass.” But it's exciting. Making Wasting Light was one of the most fun albums that I've ever made in my entire career. Every day, the engineer and I would look at each other and go, “Is this rad or what?” We're in Dave's garage making a kick-ass record. His daughters would barge in in the middle of a guitar solo and we'd go, “Hold on.”
THR: We saw that in the documentary Back and Forth, which is also nominated for a Grammy, and it was ridiculously adorable.
Grohl: I love my family so much that, to be with them while making a record, was just heaven. It was the best of both worlds. If I could take them on the road with me all the time, I would, but I can’t. So I hate going on the f--king road. If I could have them come in to the studio with me every day I would, but I can't, so I go to them.
THR: You had the brilliant idea of cutting up up the master tape and giving a piece away to everyone who bought the album. That was a memento for fans, but what was your keepsake?
Vig: I keep my lists. I have these pads where I write down stuff to do and I always keep those. It's fun to go back a year late or two later and just sort of scroll through. The funny thing is, because I'm so used to working with ProTools, my notes are completely different. Dave only had four tracks to do all his vocals on. On ProTools, you can do hundreds of tracks. It's all about performance. Dave would do four takes and a warm up and that would be it. Now looking back a year later, I can still see those performances. I remember exactly that I was sitting ten feet away from him while he was singing. Sometimes he sang right next to me, just sat down with a handheld mic. I can see it all in my notes.
Grohl: It was one of the reasons why I thought we should do it analog because I wanted to retain that feel and that human element -- the sound that is the Foo Fighters. I really thought the more imperfection in the album, the better, because it will set it apart from everything else. Because everything is so pristine and perfect now. That was like our foot in the door. This album is going to be different than our other albums because we're doing it in a different place and we're doing it in a different way.
Vig: Next album, eight track!
Grohl: You know what, f--kin’ believe me, I will do that. I've already started thinking, the next one has to be live to two-track.
Vig: Oh my god.
THR: In all of the Nevermind folklore that has emerged in the last 15 years, one thing I was amazed by was how much of the album’s background vocals were sung by Dave. Butch, did you know then that he had frontman potential and would one day be leading one of the most successful rock bands of the last 20 years?
Grohl: I'm pretty sure that was before my testicles dropped.
Vig: I didn't really know. I knew he had a great voice from day one because he sang a lot of the harmony vocals and his voice blended great with Kurt's. A couple times in the studio, he picked up the guitar and would play, but I had no idea that he could shred on the guitar.
Grohl: Well Kurt was a left-handed guitar player so the only guitars sitting around were f--kin' lefties. I played like I didn't know how to play guitar.
THR: How do you guys see the state of the music business today, having your wealth of experience both seeing its highs and lows?
Vig: It's in flux. I think as much as a lot of people can moan and complain about why things don't work anymore because of the digital revolution and illegal downloading, it sort of forces everyone to wake up and smell the roses to a certain extent and reinvent themselves and look for ways to connect with your audience and make a living doing it. I think the toughest thing for everyone is looking at how the youth culture today doesn't really put a value on music. I mean, they still want music, but they would rather save up their music and go to a concert and just download the music illegally or buy video games or whatever.
Grohl: You know, there's a part of me that feels like one of the reasons why music is considered worthless sometimes is because I think the majority of it is. That sounds terrible, but music needs to connect with people, there needs to be some depth to it, some sort of emotional human connection that you from artists that are the real deal. Then there's that other kind of music that usually sells the most because its promoted in ways that propels that. But I think that maybe if people focused on the real side of things a little clearer, the industry would be a little healthier. I've said this before: the Adele record is a perfect example. That's a really good record and she's a really talented artist and it's selling like f--king crazy because she's a real talent.
Vig: She's the real deal.
Grohl: It's a really good record. So imagine if all of the really good records made by really good artists were promoted in the same way. Do you think one of them would sell? I think they would all sell. But unfortunately sometimes the focus is on the other side of music, which doesn't have a lot of value.
Vig: We are sort of awash in a sea of mediocrity. How many bands are on YouTube, a million? Five million? Ten million? The great thing about digital and the bad thing about digital is that it’s leveled the playing field. Twenty years ago, you had to go to your manager and go to and expensive studio to record. Now you can make a recording on your laptop in your basement that sounds pretty good. Then just upload it to YouTube and if you've written a good song, it can go viral. And all of the sudden you're playing on a tour opening for someone in theaters or you sign on with management and you have a shot at gaining a large audience. But what comes of that is this massive sea of mediocrity. Like everybody can be in a band now. So really, the things that are really, really good will stick out. Like Adele. That's one of the reasons the album has sold ten million copies -- it's massive because people love it.
Grohl: It's not unlike what was happening when Butch and I first met. There wasn't really much going on that people could sink their claws into. I mean, do you want to hear some 28-year-old man with Farrah Fawcett hair singing about f--king blow jobs in a limo on Sunset Strip? Or, you've got like these balladeers singing sappy ass bullshit. That's what was happening right before Nirvana got popular. And I look at music today and it's like, it's not that different.